The name came from the Protestation of the German princes and cities at the Diet of Speyer* in 1529. The verb protestari from which the adjective “Protestant” is derived means not simply “to protest” in the sense of “to raise an objection,” but also “to avow or witness or confess.” Protestants believed they were confessing the primitive faith of the early church, which had been obscured by the later innovations of medieval Catholicism. More specifically, they regarded their message as a recovery of Pauline theology. Their main points were these:
(1) Scripture and tradition. There is a single source of revelation from which the Christian Church draws its teaching, and that source is Holy Scripture. Every doctrine which the church wishes to teach is found in Holy Scripture of necessity. This does not mean that the Protestant appeal to Scripture alone (sola scriptura) implies a total rejection of the tradition of the church; on the contrary, tradition is highly respected as an aid for the understanding of Holy Scripture. The wisdom of the past is not rejected, but neither is it looked upon as a second source of revelation. The Protestant Christian attempts to understand Scripture with the assistance of all those who have labored on it before him. Nevertheless it is Scripture itself and not the exegetical traditions of the church which is the final norm of Christian doctrine.
(2) Justification by faith. In Catholic thought, justification is a gracious release of power which makes the Christian actually righteous. God considers the Christian to be righteous to the extent that he is conformed to the will of God and purged from the guilt of sin. That means that the Catholic expects at death to go to purgatory, where the satisfaction that he owes for his sins will be expiated. He cannot hope to enter heaven until this process is completed. The merits of Christ, which gained the sacraments for him, must be supplemented by his own merits, earned in cooperation with sacramental grace. Protestants had a quite different view. Righteousness is not a human property; it is not something which a man possesses. When a man trusts the Gospel, the good news of God's love in Christ, God pronounces him righteous, not because he already is, but because he possesses in faith the righteousness of another, the righteousness of Christ. All ideas of human merit are excluded from this understanding of justification.
(3) Certitude of salvation. While the Catholic Christian can have objective certitude of salvationi.e., confidence that all the elect will be saved, that the sacraments of the church are reliable and do confer grace-he cannot have subjective certitude of salvationi.e., confidence that he himself is elect and will finally be saved. At most he can have conjectural certitude, based on the reliability of the promises of God and the observable signs of his own growth in grace. Protestant Christians do not seek for certitude of salvation by examination of conscience or by an attempt to measure their own growth in grace. Certitude is based on the Word of God, which stands outside the self and which may even contradict the self's religious experiences. Luther* maintained that the Christian is like an invalid in hospital who has begun to get well. Looking at himself, the patient can only conclude that he is as ill as when he was admitted to hospital, but he clings to the word of the physician and trusts it. His comfort and certitude are found outside himself in the word of another. The same holds true for the Christian. He grounds his faith, not in the present state of his recovery, but on the Word of the divine Physician alone. He seeks his certitude and righteousness, not in himself, but in the absolutely naked Word of God.
(4) Sacraments. There is for Protestants only one means of grace: the Word. But this takes many forms; Scripture, preaching, pastoral conversation, and the sacraments. The sacraments are a visible Word of God. They do not offer the church something which it does not have when it trusts the Word of God in Scripture and proclamation, but they offer the church another mode or form of participation in that Word. Protestants accept as sacraments only those two sacraments for which there is NT warrant for believing they were established by
(5) The Church. The church is created by the gifts of God: His calling, election, Word, sacraments, and gifts of faith and love. Protestant churches, though they lack the juridical structure and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, do not lack any of the elements essential to the existence of the church of Jesus Christ. Though election is hidden and faith is invisible, the church of Jesus Christ can be recognized by the signs of the proclamation of the Gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.
(6) Priesthood of all believers. The Protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers refers principally to the common right of all Christian brethren to hear the confession of sin. Luther was not opposed to confession; he was opposed to making it a clerical monopoly. All Christian brethren may hear confession, may be bearers to each other of God's Word of judgment and grace. To be such a priest is to be Christ to the neighbor, but this in no way, of course, supersedes the right of every man to have direct access to God through Christ, which needs no human intermediary.
(7) Order and ministry. Since every Christian is a priest, there is no spiritual difference between pastor and people, only a difference of function in the body of Christ. The Protestant minister bears an office. He may have gifts which differ from those of the layman whom he serves as pastor-but not necessarily. He does not bear an indelible sacramental character which sets him apart from laymen. He has been ordained to do publicly what all Christians have been commissioned through baptism to do privately: to bear witness to Jesus Christ. There is no question of higher and lower, but solely of order and function.
While Protestantism is a historical phenomenon which cannot be understood simply in terms of the theological convictions of the first generation of Protestant Reformers, these theological motifs have nevertheless remained in Protestantism, with greater or lessened intensity, throughout its history.
See also Reformation; Lutheranism; Calvinism; Puritanism; Fundamentalism; Evangelicalism; and entries under individual Protestant churches.
J.S. Whale, The Protestant Tradition (1955); A.S. Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze (1960); K. Heim, The Nature of Protestantism (1963); F.F. Bruce, Tradition Old and New (1970); D.C. Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings (1971).